Two years of poor rainfall, insecurity and rising world food prices have led to a devastating food security emergency in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and probably Eritrea. Somalia is the epicenter of the regional crisis, and without massive food, nutrition and livelihood interventions, the famine is likely to continue spreading. The death rate will be compounded by seasonal rains that will spread disease among the already severely weakened population. Elderly people and children are worst hit. The UN warns that 750,000 could die by December. To prevent this from happening, the international community must increase humanitarian assistance efforts, removing all remaining barriers to aid, and support longer-term efforts to promote peace and stability.
This disaster has been long in the making. There has been a gradual breakdown in traditional coping mechanisms, as years of violence and instability have hugely impacted on food production and food security in the fertile pockets of the south. Agriculture, and subsistence farming in particular, has been steadily on the decline over the last two decades. Lack of investment, land degradation, climate change, and conflict are the primary causes.
But the problem is not really that there is no food in Somalia, but that the landless and the urban poor simply cannot afford it. Many of those who have perished or who are now fleeing come from Somalia’s huge underclass – the impoverished remote peasant farming communities or agro-pastoralists, historically despised and marginalised. They are not the beneficiaries of the boom in remittances from overseas Somalis, so unlike some others, they lack money to buy food.
The current humanitarian response is not adequate, and most aid delivery is concentrated in the capital, Mogadishu, where it has overwhelmed the inefficient distribution system, partially managed by the Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Many complain that relief items are piling up in warehouses, TFG bureaucracy is clogging up the delivery system, and corruption is rife. The continued ineffectiveness of the TFG, as well as attempts by local actors to manipulate and profit from humanitarian aid delivery, are greatly complicating assistance efforts in Mogadishu and neighboring Afgooye Corridor (where many of the internally displaced can be found).
It has been even more difficult to reach other affected populations in Al Shabab-controlled territory in south and central Somalia due to lack of international partners, logistical constraints and problems created by some elements within the Islamist insurgent group. Most donors and agencies have announced they would return if there are guarantees that their operations will not be “taxed” and food will not be diverted. However, it is highly unrealistic that some aid will not be diverted or inadvertently end up assisting people affiliated with Al Shabab, so organizations risk running afoul of US and UN restrictions.
An August decision by the Obama administration eased US Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) restrictions for American implementing partners, but aid organizations remain worried that they could nonetheless violate US legal restrictions or become targets of partisan politics. Because of this, many organizations are sitting on the sidelines rather than providing desperately needed assistance to starving people.
A number of aid organizations have proven that it is indeed possible to work in the south – and limit food aid diversions – despite claims to the contrary. To work safely, they have built good relations and trust with local authorities and NGOs. Al Shabab is far from monolithic and is split about the wisdom of manipulating assistance. It is not a hierarchy; it is run by a Shura council of leaders who have a great deal of local discretion in areas they control.
The continued humanitarian crisis in south and central Somalia demands action today. The US should not only temporarily lift all restrictions imposed on aid groups that prevent them from operating in Al-Shabab “controlled” areas, but provide a temporary general license for aid groups operating in Somalia, or some similar legal waiver. These groups should still be expected not to pay taxes and do everything they can to prevent assistance from being diverted to Al-Shabaab, but inevitably, it has to be expected that some of it will make it into the wrong hands. However, the marginal benefit to Al Shabab is far outweighed by the humanitarian need and the goodwill that humanitarian assistance would generate among Somalis (and Muslims in general). This is an excellent opportunity to start shifting perceptions within Somalia (and the Muslim world) that the US only cares about the war on terror.
A longer-term problem is reestablishing peace and stability in south and central Somalia. It is not surprising that the crisis is much less serious in Somaliland and Puntland, which have been relatively stable regions. Many have argued for years that stability in south and central Somalia requires a much greater willingness of the TFG to reconcile with local authorities and devolve power to local and regional administrations. This should include more pragmatic elements of Al Shabab willing to renounce terrorism.
Since June 2011, the TFG has shown some willingness to improve political cohesion. It has been helped by the withdrawal of Al Shabab from most of their positions in Mogadishu on Aug. 6. Al Shabab has lost some momentum due to the drought, although the group has proven many times before that it has great potential and knows exactly when to use it to its best advantage.
In early September, the TFG and Somali partners approved an ambitious “Somalia End of Transition Roadmap” that includes a commitment to devolution of power, completion of the constitution-making process, parliamentary reform and election of a new leadership within a year. The Transitional Federal Institutions (TFIs) will now need to demonstrate the political will and capacity to support the road map. They must focus on national issues and the delivery of basic services for the local population without competing directly with warlords and “businessmen.” If they don’t, Al Shabab may regroup and return en masse to the city.
More can be done. The US and other key donors have long advocated a “dual track” policy of support for both the TFG and other responsible local administrations in Somalia. This approach is the right policy, but half-hearted involvement and lack of international consensus and coordination on how to implement this policy are complicating the situation. A public commitment by the international community to assist struggling local administrations — by helping them feed their starving populations – would be a welcome show of support, help generate consensus around directly assisting other administrations in Somalia, and incentivize the establishment of other authorities independent of Al Shabab. Assistance, however, needs to be disbursed very carefully because of corruption and how it may empower spoilers. Thus temporarily waiving restrictions will not only save lives, but could also help achieve the political and security goals of the United States.